| 27 May 2024, Monday |

Canada defends pandemic policy on asylum-seekers while letting more enter through exemptions

Even as it has given a growing number of exemptions to its policy of turning back asylum-seekers entering the country between border crossings, the Canadian government is attempting to crush a judicial challenge to the policy, claiming that the group bringing it lacks standing.

On Thursday, the parties were in court debating who should be allowed to bring a case in the public interest.

According to government records, Canada has turned back at least 544 asylum seekers attempting to enter from the United States between ports of entry since March 2020.

The government claims that the COVID-19 epidemic justifies its policy, and that the exemptions it has granted demonstrate that there is a way out.

Refugee lawyers said that these exemptions are inadequate, as at least one asylum-seeker was deported from the United States after receiving an exemption, and belie the policy’s justification.

“Refugee travel is not discretionary,” said Maureen Silcoff, a refugee lawyer and past president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, which earlier this year challenged the policy.

The government argues that the association lacks legal standing and its challenge should be struck.

The association is neither the intended beneficiary nor the target of the rule and “has no real stake or genuine interest in the outcome of this litigation,” the government said in a court filing. It said asylum-seekers who have been turned back should bring the case.

Refugee lawyers said those asylum-seekers, some of whom end up in U.S. immigration detention, are poorly placed to challenge the policy.

Starting in July, Canada increased the number of National Interest Exemptions it issued to asylum-seekers who had been turned back, enabling them to enter Canada and file refugee claims.

Between March 2020 and July 2021, Canada had granted just eight such exemptions. By Oct. 14, that number had risen to 159 exemptions, according to documents filed in court.

Canada’s immigration ministry did not respond to questions about the criteria for these exemptions.

Canada has a Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States under which asylum-seekers who present at a land border crossing are turned back. It has been challenged twice but upheld most recently this spring.

  • Reuters